Third Places & Third Spaces – #DigPed PEI

Part the first: How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Internet (Kinda)

I come from a small place.

Seen from Google Earth, Prince Edward Island is a dot off the northern edge of the Atlantic Ocean, a pastoral sandbar best known for lobster, potato farms, and Anne of Green Gables. I left in a hurry at seventeen. I often say if you’d told me then that I’d move back willingly someday, I would have spat on you.

But I did move back. Mid-life is a funny thing: I now live a block away from my mother and call myself lucky, which is not the word seventeen-year-old me would have deployed. And from tiny Prince Edward Island, I’ve spent the past decade learning more than I ever imagined there was to learn about the operations of the global apparatus that is contemporary higher ed. More, I benefit from a richer, more robust circle of colleagues and fellow educators and learners than I’ve had at any other time in my life.

This is, in large part, because the internet became my local hangout.

(Yes, the internet is – as we are regularly informed by headlines, and not inaccurately – a fraught and messy place. Yes, the internet and its cloistered cousins, learning platforms and management systems, can be tools by which learning gets reduced and instrumentalized and commodified beyond recognition, if we’re not careful. Yes.)

But it can also be what Howard Rheingold was clever enough back in 1993 to recognize as a form of Oldenburg’s “third place;” a space for conviviality, playfulness, community, and “appreciation of human personality and individuality.” Like a coffee shop, bar, general store, library or arcade, a third place is a semi-public (often partially commercial) space that extends human community beyond the boundaries of home and work – a local hangout, as it were.

Howard’s assertions about the internet as inherently social were initially just stories I read, about places like The WELL and MUDs and MOOs, virtual frontiers that had mostly receded or disappeared by the time I even learned they existed. But I read them, and they stuck with me, and shaped my understanding of digital culture and my emerging practices as an online educator, even back in 1999. They planted a seed that suggested that the internet could be more than the glorified calculator and search engine and email machine I was gradually becoming familiar with. They opened the door to the idea that the internet might be a place to learn and engage and develop identity and friendships. That seed took years to take hold, but in the end, it is one of the concepts that has made the greatest difference in my life, professionally and personally.

Far more recently, in 2014, Catherine Cronin expanded my understanding of the third place by introducing me to Gutierrez’ somewhat more complex, political conception of “Third Space (2008).” The third space is explicitly an educational construct of sociocultural learning environments marked by what Gutierrez frames as “distinctive participation structures and power relations.” In Gutierrez’ model, the Third Space is the place where “teacher and student scripts – the formal and informal, the official and unofficial spaces of the learning environment – intersect, creating the potential for authentic interaction and a shift in the social organization of learning and what counts as knowledge.”

In other words, the Third Space is a potentially transformative space between the roles of student and teacher, a hybrid space where identities and literacies and practices can actually change on both sides. In a Third Space approach to education, what Gutierrez frames as a cosmopolitan in-between-ness marked by “shared humanity, a profound obligation to others, boundary crossing, and intercultural exchange where difference is celebrated without being romanticized” is core to learning design.

This Third Space is not the small place I grew up. But somewhere in seventeen years of the small-town classrooms I sat in from kindergarten through my undergrad, a few teachers, books, and Rolling Stone articles somehow nurtured some tiny kernel of Third Space in me. And then I spent my early adulthood looking for the third place where it could flower.
***

Part the second: There and Back Again

I thought for a long time it was probably in Prague.

I barely crossed Canada’s borders until my very late twenties. But for a decade after the Velvet Revolution, all over Canada’s more humbly regional towns, I pined for Prague. Not because I actually had much of a clue about Prague, but because I’d gotten the idea that it was the closest thing to Paris in the 20s that I was ever going to lay my grubby provincial paws on. And so I bought old travel guides at used bookstores and I read about absinthe and Vaclav Havel and I pored over picture after picture of ornate birthday-cake buildings. In one case the guide was so old it was for Czechoslovakia and not the Czech Republic, and so I learned mostly about the Soviet monuments of Prague.

But had I not already had some instinctive, hothouse-flower-cultivated sense that a Third Space/third place Elsewhere was out there having all the good conversations without me, that old sad, dog-eared Fodor’s guide might have served to foster my impression of Prague simply as an exotic, historic collection of pictures I could take someday.

When we humans fetishize something we have not yet experienced, we tend to reduce it to its instrumental, transactional elements. We imagine we understand, but we not only fail, we often do violence to actual lived experience in our insistence on our understanding. This is why immersion and perspective-taking and reflection are such powerful learning tools: they destabilize our known spaces, our first spaces, and force us to live through the experience of altering our perspective.

I eventually got to live that experience, though it – inevitably, I suppose – changed my fetishized vision of what Third Space would be. I made it to Prague one November at almost thirty, and took a pile of pictures, sure, but also stumbled into conversations late at night in underground bars and street festivals that opened my access to perspectives I’d never encountered before. I stayed abroad for five years. I went to Korea and braved slam poetry for the first time. I sat in hostels and coffee shops in Turkey and Malaysia and Scotland, people-watching and talking to strangers. All through the process, I taught people and lived among people and befriended people who had grown up in cultures and education systems very different from my own small place.

And after five years of itinerancy and inbetween-ness, I concluded there was no ideal Elsewhere, no single third place that encapsulated the Third Space I’d longed for. Or rather, perhaps – as an old friend used to say – that wherever you go, there you are. In the end, I came home to PEI.

The talking to strangers was harder here. But then I found my way online.
***

Part the Third / Space / Place: #DigPed PEI

Gutierrez’ concept of the Third Space has little to do with the internet or with digital education, though she talks about it as being mediated by a range of tools. Catherine Cronin’s work on networked publics has drawn from both third place and Third Space ideas, as has Kathrine Jensen’s.

For me, all three – combined with Howard situating digital community within Oldenburg’s third place construct – speak to the potentiality of the internet as a human in-between space that enables third place collegiality combined with the hybrid positionality and perspective-taking of Third Space. A perspective always larger than the local, while deeply embedded within whatever particular context it has sprung from; a hybrid perspective never fully subsumed into the thick of things.

This is what I aim for when I teach, and when I work with educators around digital technologies and digital practices. This is the hope I brought to Egypt with me last week for our #DigPed institute at the American University of Cairo.

It was hope more than fulfilled. I sat at tables with people who speak from a multitude of locales and perspectives and embodied histories, truly in a Third Space. Our work served to network some of them into conversations that take place in my online third place, and reciprocally, to give me a window into their contexts and classrooms, where they choose to share. I tweeted with one participant’s class in Beirut just this morning.

Still, when I first came across the idea of the internet as a third place, I hadn’t yet experienced much in the way of online community or conviviality. It was only later that blogs and social networking platforms began to extend my social world and community by thousands of kilometres. When I read Howard’s The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, I was very much the same person who read travel guides to countries she’d never been to and thought of them as collections of pictures to be taken.

My reductive, task-based understanding stemmed, at least for me, simply from not being able to imagine the full depth of what I had not yet experienced.

And I wonder if maybe a similar reductive failure of imagination informs a great deal of the dominant narrative critiquing digital engagement, particularly the cries of “screens are making us less connected!” that Sherry Turkle et al publish regularly in the New York Times. Not that fears and cautions and skepticism about the logics of media and capital that drive the internet aren’t warranted. Many, many are. But the dominant narrative tends more towards essentializing the face-to-face and reducing the digital to instrumental, task-based impersonality, rather than recognizing it as a human space with all the potential – educative and destructive, both – that that implies.

As I see it, we need third places – and Third Spaces – in order to grapple with the complexities of education and learning in an unequally globalized society driven by logics of media and capital.

So as a small start, this coming July, we’re bringing the three-day Digital Pedagogy Lab institute model home to my small place.

What I’m aiming to seed with #DigPed PEI is three-fold:

  1. To do what Howard did for me in opening up the concept of the internet and the digital as a human, social, third place environment where learning could take place.
  2. To scaffold the immersive equivalent of hanging out in Prague rather than reading reductive guidebooks, by curating participants’ experiential entry INTO actual human, social, educative third places ON the internet itself, in ways they can then apply to their contexts and their personal and professional practices. If they want. If they don’t, at least they’ll be making a choice informed by an experiential understanding of possibility, rather than by dominant narratives.
  3. To invite the denizens of my third place to experience this small place, which I think has much to offer, even beyond beaches and Anne of Green Gables. The lived experience of a town where “who’s your father?” remains the staple second question after “what’s your name?” is good preparation for the strange mix of hypervisibility and “is this thing on?” that marks networked engagement. The small scale of the educational system in this province offers an opportunity to get educators together from all three – for there are ONLY three – educational entities in the province to build ties and conversations in ways that can’t happen in the same way in larger centres. And as a hardscrabble, regional place on the margins of North American identity yet still utterly privileged as part of the global North, this site is…a little different. Too often, the third space of English-speaking networked scholarship and educational practice is profoundly US-centric. We don’t have FERPA here. Education is a provincial rather than federal matter. A conversation here is never entirely removed from the dominant North American conversation, but neither is it entirely encapsulated by it. We have the makings of a Third Space, maybe. I can hope.

And our dollar is dismally cheap right now. Just sayin’. ;)

***
If you’d like to hold a space for yourself in #DigPed PEI, fill out this handy pre-registration form by April 30th. We’ve been delighted by interest so far. 

And if you can’t join us in person but want to contribute to the conversation, there will be a #DigPed discussion on digital literacies – and third places and spaces – Friday April 8th at noon EDT (1pm PEI time!).

#dLRN15 – Making Sense of Higher Education

I sat at a lunch table earlier this week with some friends and colleagues at my institution and accidentally started a rousing conversation…about conferences.

I asked: What do conferences need to DO to be…valuable?

We all had different answers. In fact, we were perhaps in entirely separate conversations.

One staff colleague, affiliated with an association with an established and funded annual conference, said that conferences need to help get people into the learning/working mindset once the great annual social gathering is convened.

I can see that.

Other staff colleagues, whose positions are not affiliated with associations or any established conferences, but who have access to some annual or bi-annual funding, had a different response. Theirs focused on relevance and how they could find conversations aimed at giving them new conceptual tools while still recognizing that they have systems and practical limits they need to work within.

I could see that too.

Had we just reached out over the cafeteria benches to the rest of our colleagues around us, what other responses would we have gotten?

For faculty, sharing their work and research, both in sessions and in conversations with peers from different contexts, would’ve likely factored high.

For sessional or adjunct colleagues – whose $500 annual institutional budget for conference reimbursement is unlikely to even get many TO a major conference let alone reimburse registration or scholarly association or hotel or food fees – yet who also need to share their work and see what’s shaking up their fields in order to play in the academic prestige economy game of hoping to make more than 20k a year someday, the response might’ve mostly been laughter. Or weeping.

Same for the grad students.

Administrators might have had multiple different answers. I’m cynical enough to assume some would have been about the expense of conferences. I’ve been to enough conferences to half-nod and call that justified. I’m not so cynical as to think there aren’t other, strategic and vision-related answers that might have emerged from those corners.

I can see all those positions.

And then some of us in that cafeteria don’t even register on this list. Right now, I hold two separate part-time roles for which conference travel is not an official part of the budget. At this juncture, I pretty much go as an invited speaker or not at all. This is great work if you can get it, admittedly. However, when your jobs do not include “academic service” and one of them doesn’t include vacation, you come home and make up the days and time lost, which is rather like embodying the summit and the nadir of academic status simultaneously. And it’s not a position that’s often visible from the outside.

It’s hard to hold all our myriad perspectives in view, at once. Yet all of us in that cafeteria the other day – and many more, standing in spots I haven’t managed to articulate – are higher ed professionals.

We are, all of us, the people Raul Pacheco-Vega is referring to when he says “we need to rethink academia, but collectively.”

So I asked What do conferences need to DO? because I was thinking about re-thinking academia collectively. I was thinking about taking our conversations beyond Twitter and responses to op-eds we don’t control…I was thinking about making online ed more than training wheels, to quote Jonathan Rees; I was thinking that somewhere in the overall answer is the possibility that all the above groups and more end up sitting at the same tables, talking to each other about change, fulfilling at least a bit of all the purposes, all the answers.

I was thinking, basically, you should come to #dLRN15: Making Sense of Higher Education. If you can at all.

***
#dLRN15 – which will take place at Stanford on October 16th & 17th, 2015 – aims to “explore the most pressing uncertainties and most promising applications of digital networks for learning and the academy.”

Ambitious, definitely. But worth a shot.

We have Adeline Koh and Mike Caulfield and Marcia Devlin all coming in as keynotes.

We’re trying to explore five strands of conversation through the lenses of networks and change:

  • The ethics of collaboration
  • Individualized learning
  • Systemic impacts
  • Innovation and work
  • Sociocultural Implications

We’re trying to make it about re-thinking academia collectively. We want “stakeholders” and grad students on the same panels. We want “research” outputs central but voluntary, because not all valuable contributions are formalized as research. We want Works-in-Progress. We want connections and a social gathering and recognition of limits and recognition of contributions…and we want to make good use of people’s time.

We want you.

Yes, you. You, the staff member. You, the professor. You, please, the adjunct and the grad student and the non-institutional scholar and the otherwise-contingent member of the academy – we have significantly-reduced rates for all of the above. You, the administrator. You, the person who doesn’t know what table you fit at.

We want all the things conferences are for, under one roof. We want to talk about higher ed, and futures, and how we can all learn to hear each other and make sense of it all.

I don’t know if we can do all that conferences need to do to be valuable. But we will try.

Submit your 250 word abstract by June 1st to join us. And if you’d like to help us review submissions and make this conversation as rich as it can be, click here.

I look forward to it.

The Old School – Sexism, Social Media, Campus Culture, and Identities

Mostly, when I write and talk about social media, the riskiest thing I’m doing is destabilizing a few people’s dearly-held concepts about the ways in which scholarly influence operates and circulates within academia.

This past weekend, though, I had the privilege of doing something that felt much more dangerous – I talked about the culture of sexism and sexualized violence on campuses and in society at large. In a keynote, on a campus where last year’s student orientation chant about non-consensual sex hit Youtube and made national and international news. The audience, mostly from Maritime Canada higher ed institutions, were lovely. Designing the talk was terrifying.

Not because I was talking particularly outside my field: I wasn’t. I talked about it all through the lens of social media, as both a symptom of and contributor to the problem. I talked about #yesallwomen and about the UCSB shooting and Men’s Rights Activism sites and about how social media amplifies all aspects of who we are and what we think and believe, and reflects society’s power relations as much as it also actively tries to shape them. I talked about how the stories we tell ourselves about technologies are often deterministic, even scapegoating, focusing blame on gadgets rather than on ourselves. It was a culture talk, a structure talk, and a history talk, in addition to being a social media talk. I was proud of it.

And it went well, though I can’t entirely credit my carefully-crafted navigation of the semiotic landscape of gender and power. It worked in part because I didn’t actually have to introduce the topics of conversation or carry them into the arena for discussion: I followed on the heels of the very sincere and very illustrious Wayne MacKay, whose bio features his Order of Canada and the fact that he chairs committees and councils on cyberbullying and sexualized violence on campuses and is a lawyer and professor and former President of my undergraduate institution.

(My bio, on the other hand, pretty much mentions that I have a Twitter account. To thine own self be true.)

It wasn’t punching above my weight that felt dangerous. It was the in-between space of the topic: the fact that what is sayable about the reality of gendered identities and sexual politics these days is fraught and limited. The fact that – and this is at the core of everything I tried to say – they have ALWAYS been fraught and limited. The fact that as a 42 year old grown woman with a big-ass vocabulary, using the word “patriarchy” in a public conversation – online or in person – still makes me nervous. Because I don’t much enjoy being diminished and abused, full stop, and while correlation may not be causation, I tend not to stick my hand back on the stovetop after a burn.

When high-status white males lend their voices to framing these conversations, it’s easier. Their very presence does the discursive work of legitimating the topic, making it a Very Important Thing and not an attack from the margins. In the case of Saturday’s conversation, it also helped that we were addressing college and university student services professionals who live and walk the talk of diverse, inclusive campuses far more adeptly and viscerally and vigilantly than many in higher ed. But Wayne and the gentleman who opened the day also introduced terms like misogyny and rape culture to the conversation, leaving me free to deepen that conversation rather than spend my hour trying to justify having it in the first place. Their acknowledgement of sexism and sexual violence as problems within campus cultures was key.

But the very identity positions that enable white Boomer males who sit at tables of power to speak of sexism and sexual violence without being seen as accusing also allow them to reify frameworks that neutralize and distance these phenomena, whether they mean to or not. Talk of hookup culture and social media and values serves to make this a “kids these days” conversation, not a conversation about the imbalance of power and identities in our culture. It makes the problem new. It makes us – the grownups – less complicit.

Let me be very precise. This is not new…it is old school, in the most literal sense. We are simply forced – by virtue of an immersive and intrusive news culture and the rise of risk management and institutional optics – to talk about it.

I talked about this in terms of stories. Stories are the ways in which we understand who we are, and our stories of culture and technologies right now are failing to give us any tools we need to develop productive identities for the world we’re in.

I told a story about obscene phone calls. When I was nine or ten, my mother and I had a caller who harassed us for months before the threat of being traced finally got rid of him. Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 9.32.07 PMEarly on, before my mother banned me from answering, I heard the deep, heavy breathing on the other end of the line. I suspect he said more to my mother, because I remember the sharp staccato of her voice, fearful and indignant. I knew from my friends that if we’d only had a man in the house he could’ve gotten on the line and scared the caller into going away. I decided that when I got old enough to get my own phone line I’d put it in my initials, not my name…because I was female. I also began cultivating the deepest, most rumbling voice I could. I wanted to be heard.

Of course, by the time I got old enough to have a phone line of my own, call display had largely wrecked the obscene phone call market and its capacity to assert power and create fear without actually facing personal consequences. The heavy breathers had to go underground and wait for the Internet, for underbelly pockets where they could congregate, no longer isolated, and reflect and amplify each others’ fledgling desires to exert power without consequence, to create fear in vulnerable others. The desires are not new. The technologies of our time regulate and constrain the identities we get to try on for size.

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 10.13.55 PM

Mount Allison women’s rugby, 1993

So do our cultural artefacts, and our frames of reference. I  told a story about the chant that scandalized Canadian higher ed last fall. I said that while I shared Wayne’s dismay at the fact that it was part of orientation in 2013, I didn’t share his shock: I knew the words. Twenty years ago, at the university where Wayne was later President, I learned that chant at a rugby game.

The student leaders interviewed last fall about the chant said they’d never really listened to the lyrics. I had. I’d heard and understood, just as I understood the rest of the songs that made up the raucous rugby identity: I just didn’t know what the hell to do with any of it, because I did not know if I could object and still belong. The rugby club was the first mixed-gender space I’d found where I did not feel diminished by the fact that I did not interact like a *lady.* Rugby didn’t take itself too seriously, and I thought I had to not take myself too seriously, either. So I sang along and I drank along and I tried to straddle the cognitive dissonance of it all, and mostly I failed and felt prudish and then tried harder. I did not even know it was supposed to be different. I did not know how to get outside it. It was called a tradition and it appeared to be the water we swam in and so I joined in and perpetuated it because I wanted that sense of belonging and I had no role models for a different discourse. And that is not new, either…but in the smallest ways it is shifting. Because peer-to-peer media don’t just de-isolate the heavy breathers, but those on the other end of the line. They allow outpourings like #yesallwomen as much as they allow forums for MRAs and PUAs. They allow those of us who work on campuses to connect and engage and try to set different frames of reference for campus identities, different examples, different discourses for belonging. They will not magically solve anything. But used well, they can be the kind of signal that enables people – male, female, whomever – to begin to be able to think about objecting, and changing traditions, without having to give up hope of belonging.

Or so I said Saturday. In the end, that talk didn’t feel nearly so risky in the delivery as I’d feared and I was heartened and for a minute I even thought, “maybe it’s not so hard to have this conversation after all.”

Then George Will popped up in The Washington Post yesterday. And I laughed at my naivete and realized this conversation has barely begun.
***

You’ve probably seen the article by now, deriding “the supposed campus epidemic of rape: aka “sexual assault.” Note the scare quotes. That’s the tone of the whole piece: “micro-aggressions” and “survivors” get the same contempt. The article conflates the recent trigger warning kerfuffle with an overall moral panic about how progressivism has made everyone on campuses “hypersensitive, even delusional, about victimizations.” Will asserts that victimhood is a coveted status on American campuses, one that now confers privileges.

I won’t bother to explain that it is not a privilege but a human right to assert that one is not just a sexual object, even when one is treated that way. I won’t bother to explain that when one DOES assert this right one is often treated to the very questionable privilege of being publicly excoriated and shamed by people like Will himself.

(I will bother to explain – to all of us, even the most active in peer-to-peer communications – that when the surge of people talking about structural grievances like racism and sexism and rape threats and able-ism and the right to speak from identity positions we do not happen to fully understand, share, or agree with begins to sound like victimhood as privilege, we might want to hold that judgement. Because yes, identity and power politics are messy and conflated right now. Yes, it can make some of us with actual structural privileges in the matrix of societal domination feel unfamiliarly – even unfairly – silenced in arenas we are unaccustomed to, and yes, some people will navigate these new discursive regimes in ways that are sensationalist or distasteful or whatever. This is the price of a performative public sphere. Nobody gets to be neutral).

But the privileges of victimhood are not the conversation Will is actually in. He’s in the conversation about who has the right to do what to who; the conversation about what we uphold as unwritten codes of whose bodies and actions and decisions count. This is smack in the middle of Todd Akin “legitimate rape” territory. This is about the privilege to exert power without consequence, to maintain stability in the categories of who counts as a vulnerable Other. This is an old conversation, but one we didn’t have to have publicly for a long ol’ time because respectability politics is powerful, silencing stuff and belonging has long been the price of speaking back.

So I’d like to thank George Will for prompting me to take my keynote from Saturday public. Again, let me be very precise. This issue is not new, and the only privilege here is the privilege that Will is daring us to wrest from him, in Charlton Heston “from my cold, dead hands” style. He may dismiss the #survivorprivilege hashtag that arose in response to him. But he cannot silence it. And as someone who has worked on higher ed campuses for the past fifteen years, I see that as a positive beginning.

do you know networks? on leaving the Garden of Eden

Today, class, we’re going to talk about networks. And education. And power relations. Yes, again. I KNOW. You poor lambs.

I fear becoming a proselytizer. The good people who show up at my door asking if I know Jesus are not my people. I like doubters, complications, ideas that break down assumptions and build toward further questions, not answers.

And yet every time I introduce the topic of networks I feel as if I inch a little closer to preaching to the self-selected network choir and ONLY the network choir and I worry. Preaching is not the work I set out to do. Rather, I want to dig, to lay out ideas, to build new ideas. I am ever-tempted by the Tree of Knowledge. But – and this is my problem, perhaps, a problem shared by my entire household…or at least its members over four feet tall – I no longer think it is a tree.

I have thought, for ten years since I first read Deleuze and Guattari and mentioned them in passing to Dave Cormier in a long-distance phone booth call from Switzerland to Korea, that it is a rhizome. The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is not an apple, in my belief systems.

It is a weed.

Yet I was raised by the tidy gardeners and the pesticide companies and the folks who built enclosures for weedy ideas, locking them in like dandelions under glass. And likely, dear reader, so were you.

I talk about networks not to try to convert you…but to try to understand the limits of the systems we were raised in. To understand what is happening now that structure of those systems and their institutions no longer describes the structure of information flow in our society. To understand how and why the powers-that-be still rely, structurally, on those systems’ totalizing capacity. To ask how it has come to be that participatory networked practices are more likely to be framed as threats than opportunities for education in the 21st century. And to wonder who benefits from that framing.

(Okay, maybe I am trying to convert you, a little. Only because the Eden we thought we grew up in is gone.)
***

I chose a profession I initially understood in terms of tidy gardener and encloser roles: I became a teacher. I wanted to get as close to the Tree of Knowledge as I could, and to bring others into that garden. But teaching is messy: it bears little resemblance to distributing apples in Eden. I taught Inuit high school students from a social studies curriculum in which their people and their history did not appear at all; I taught GED adult learners in a back room in a tiny rural schoolhouse where many of them had learned, as children, that they were not made to succeed in school. The desks were too small for all of us. The metaphorical apples clunked on the floor. My students had long ago learned to distrust apples.

It was through weeds that I reached them, any of them, to whatever extent I reached them: informal threads snaking from one human to another. They were not Eves waiting to eat. Our learning happened underground, snaking underneath the formal level of the curriculum. Tentative connections, in multiple directions. I tried to design learning experiences, but I did not control them. Most often it was me who learned: variations on How Not To Fail The Same Way Twice.

I began to understand that my concepts of success and failure were stacked around a very narrow stream of life options and legitimacy. I began to sense the edges of what Knobel & Lankshear (2006) call “the deep grammar of schooling,” the institutionalization of my own thoughts and conceptual tools. I began to think of print as an educational problem for my students, not a solution.

My issue was not with the technology of letters per se. I love print as text, the ways its technology of letters allows for skimming and floating and starting in the middle.

My critique was for the culture of print: the Truths we use it to reinforce and regulate and reify.

My Masters thesis (2000) led me to think about the ways print works, about the ways in which the technologies of a given time shape what it means to know in that time. Things written in print are either finished or not. They do not blend into each other; they do not create webs. They create canons, privileging some over others and erasing the steps of their logic so as to make it all appear natural. They encourage us to see knowledge as finite and discrete; truth as singular, sanctioned. Our cultural attachment to the idea of knowledge as arboreal, tree-like, apple-whole: this is based in print, in The Good Book itself and moreso, in the very idea of The Good Book. Yet this Eden of high print culture, so deeply embedded in Enlightenment ideals of binaries and taxonomies, has never really had apples for everybody.

Dave Cormier’s #rhizo14 course this week is taking on the limitations of print in a Nicholas Carr parody titled “Is books making us stupid?” Risky, that. Even those of us who have spent years unpacking all the ways that print as a medium hardens and solidifies knowledge are still culturally conditioned to love books. *I* love books. When Dave announced the title for this week’s theme, I laughed and winced and hoped no offended book enthusiasts would feel it necessary to beat him about the head with a dictionary.

I don’t think books make us any stupider currently than we always have been. But even as we cling to our bookshelves of beloved companions with their dusty pages and their old-book smell, it behooves us to consider the ways in which print has shaped us societally towards institutionalization and compliance, the ways in which the deep grammar of schooling is written in print.

Because we are conditioned think of books not as technologies of paper, with particular affordances, but as representations of human good.

It’s true that until the last generation, books stood as the epitome of human capacity to share knowledge. Books were bastions against ignorance…symbols of freedom of thought against repression and enclosure. But…and this is important…it was the free exchange of ideas and communications we valorized in that Enlightenment ideal. Not actually the small yet increasingly commodified paper packet. Yet we conflated the two. And in the process, we allowed the grammar of schooling to reinforce a Romantic identification of books, in particular, with all things noble about humanity.

And that’s a mistake, because for all that good and that beautiful, undeniable history, books and their affordances – their action possibilities – are part of a complex economic system just as digital technologies are, and create mindsets that can be as limiting as they are freeing.

Books teach us implicitly that the culmination of writing as an act of communications is a product, not a conversation; a finite rather than a fluid thing. Books teach us that the one speaks to the many, but the many cannot speak back and be heard.

Education as a system is built upon and relies on the taxonomic, hierarchic structures print reinforces. It relies on people learning their places within those structures. Education is historically both a product and a producer of a deeply-embedded command and control society, as Matt Reed pointed out in Inside Higher Ed earlier this week. Now, networks have power relations too…networks can amplify inequality just as they amplify everything else. But their power relations are less fixed, more quixotic. They can cause harm, absolutely. But our conversations about that harm and about throwing one’s life away with a tweet seldom take up the harm that institutionalized power relations of racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and classism enact upon people every day. Those are the power relations naturalized by The Book and the deep grammar of schooling it is embedded in.

And here’s the thing. Perhaps that was, arguably, the best we could do. At least until knowledge and information exceeded the scarce and weighty bonds of paper and the distribution structures of shipping through time and space. It is no longer the best we can do. It is no longer WHAT most of us do, in our day to day lives. Yet the institutions and gatekeepers of the old Eden struggle to adapt and maintain the familiar balance of power by convincing us we are still better off relying, passive and trusting, on their noblesse oblige than on each other.

I do not think we should throw out our books. I am not such a network evangelist that I want what books have stood for to fall away from us, as humans. But nor do I want that to remain the limit of our vision.

Because in a world of information abundance, the walled Garden of Eden it reified is…gone. It cannot be brought back. Those who sell us a simulacra of its glories are only propping up the power relations of the past.

That Eden of *real* print culture is only a Potemkin village now, no matter how the gardeners and the pesticide companies would like to gain control back over the weeds. Let us leave the apples behind, and see what those weeds can reap.

We Don’t Need No Thought Control: the deep grammar of schooling

Late last month I went to London, not to look at The Queen but to lead three days of Media & Information Literacies workshops with Swedish teachers. It was a pleasure and a privilege and also just a really good time…and I came away having learned the following:

1. When I was 13 and I thought I wanted to run away to London to hang out with David Bowie and Boy George I HAD TOTALLY GOOD INSTINCTS. At least about cities.
2. Swedish teachers do not dress like Canadian teachers. Which may be just a Euro v. North American style distinction…but since, in my world, you can’t turn around without stumbling on people fretting about the dang PISA test and Finland, the theme of teacher professionalization and status has been on my mind. And while Sweden is NOT Finland, hey, it’s next door. So when I wandered into the first all-Swedish event of my stay, I found it curious to observe the fact that pretty much every. single. person brought the funk and androgyny (and great boots!) generally reserved here for NYC artistes or filmmakers and I wondered about cultural capital and masculinities and how a profession builds its own reputation for cool. Then I wondered where I could get myself some new and improved boots, thank you very much.
3. Again, Sweden is NOT Finland. Ahem. I learned Swedes are not officially fond of Finland. Or the PISA test. They will, if pressed, politely talk about their boots. The folks I met mostly wanted to talk with great thoughtfulness and enthusiasm about learning. They were lovely. Thanks, Per!
4. Swedish schools increasingly – though not necessarily entirely equitably – have 1 to 1 computing, meaning a device in the hands of every student.

The last one blew my mind.

The possibility of an education system where connectivity and bandwidth and crappy outdated computers and blocked sites are NOT a hurdle is, frankly, totally outside my experience. When I realized I was talking about networked education with a group of people who actually have the infrastructure to DO networked education, I felt like I’d landed at Disneyland.

For all of about 23 minutes.

Then I listened some more to what they were telling me. And I discovered what I should have known – the challenges education faces coming to terms with information abundance and 21st century communications media and all that those shifts imply are NOT actually infrastructure challenges. Yes, those are real, and they are political, and distribution of technologies is uneven and unequal and that is important to talk about and address. But they are not the key barrier.

Technology is not a solution to problems of competing knowledge claims and changing communications structures. Digital technologies can be a tool for making meaning within information abundance, but in order to function as a tool, they require skills and literacies for using them effectively FOR THAT PURPOSE.

If you could wave a magic wand and put a working iPad in the hands of every teacher and student in the world tomorrow, we’d still have an institutional schooling structure that is neither designed nor equipped nor interested in truly taking on the challenges of networked education, no matter how much lip service it pays to the ideas of “innovation” and “21st century learning.” This structure is not something we can carve out and separate from the heart of our concepts of school – it IS our concept of school. We – teachers and students most of the world ’round – are complicit in it; in upholding and replicating what Lankshear and Knobel call the “deep grammar” of schooling (2006). When we consider the idea of classrooms full of young people with devices in their hands, the words that leap to minds and mouths aren’t “connection!” or “participation!” but “distraction” and “disruption”…in all senses of the term. This is our institutionalization showing.

Our institutionalization means that, without new ways to conceptualize the work of learning, we end up replicating top-down power and knowledge structures no matter how many shiny screens we add to classrooms. Yet knowledge and information no longer work that way, not really.

I left London wondering about power and control.
***

When I talk about networked education, I try hard to confront and undermine the fetish for “shiny!…the idea of tech as a goal in itself. I focus on literacies for filtering and prioritizing within a world of immersive communications: on networks as a way of un-schooling and adapting our systems of education.

Networks need not be digital – we all grow up within networks of friends and family and acquaintances to whom we are tied one-to-one with various degrees of closeness and communications. At the same time, many of us have, with Facebook, ported our f2f networks online and live in a state of hybridity, blurring online and offline identities and connections. We are skilled in many of the practices we might need to make meaning in the great firehose of information abundance, but our culture is not giving us the meta-literacies to recognize and value and utilize those skills.

Increasingly, I encounter a strain of “I’ve never tried it but I know it’s bad” resistance to networks as educational possibilities; to social media as represented by mainstream media and cultural narratives. People have heard of Twitter, or blogging…they may even have accounts. They often use Facebook socially. But they come to the idea of educational use, increasingly, steeped in the pervasive cultural messages that social media is making us lonely or stupid or toxic or whatever the deterministic accusation of the month may be. Educators get the message that these communications media are not part of the legitimate curriculum, of the *true* pursuit of knowledge.

I get it. And I get that networks are hard, and messy, and require a constant filtering that exhausts us: I live it. But I want to consider why these cultural messages are growing stronger; who is served in the fantasy of imposing control over the proliferation of networked, peer-to-peer communications.

Some of these questions came together for me in London, in the midst of presenting. I was a few slides into the second deck below, on the second day of the workshop, talking about traditional broadcast media and information literacies and the idea of trusted channels. It occurred to me that in the midst of information abundance, our desire for trusted channels so we don’t HAVE to do the constant work of filtering is…huge. It occurred to me that the cultural narratives circulating about overload and lack of connection serve to blind us to whatever network literacies we actually practice, and that public models for complex filtering are rare. It occurred to me that those narratives implicitly encourage the default institutionalized passivity of waiting for “good,” sanctioned information from established, gatekept, powerful channels. And it occurred to me that those channels tend to be corporate or institutional hierarchies with a great deal of power and a great deal to lose if peer-to-peer networked learning and communications actually manifest to capacity, in our society. It occurred to me, much as Sarah Kendzior succinctly stated in Al Jazeera yesterday, that “demonizing social media can be a play for power.” She’s talking state power. But I’m not sure it’s any different in education. Just ask every system struggling with the externalized standards of the PISA test.

This doesn’t mean networks are in any way idealized forms of communications. That need to leap to the binary assumption that critique of one thing equals uncritical lionization of its perceived Other is itself residue of the deep grammar of schooling, the Enlightenment categorization embedded in our cultural practices. Institutions and networks are neither entirely separate nor either of them ideal. We need to be able to discuss where each offers value, and to whom. But in order to do that, we need to unpack our pre-conditioning, our sense of deep vulnerability without someone in authority telling us what to think.

Or maybe Pink Floyd were wrong. Maybe we *do* need thought control, after all.

What do YOU think? How do we address the ways in which the deep grammar of schooling and its inherent top-down structure still constitute the language our thoughts are written in? And for those taking part in Dave’s #rhizo14 conversation this week, what role do you think writing itself plays in this?

And what would (or do) YOU do in a classroom full of people with devices?